Mission statements often aren’t a high priority for executives at many U.S. companies.
“Why develop a mission statement?” some ask. “We know what we’re doing, and we know our business better than anyone else.”
Even when companies do develop mission statements, the documents are usually filed away and never consulted again as the firms return to business as usual. Or, they’re placed on a company’s web site to at least make the company appear socially aware.
At a company where I worked several years ago, a colleague who worked closely with members of the executive team – the “front office” – proposed to the executives that they take time to develop a mission statement. The response was laughter, derision and rejection. Message: “We have better things to do.”
Articulating a mission may seem superfluous, when it’s assumed that those in an organization understand what their firm’s mission is. But when an organization, to deal with short-term pressures, strays from its mission, the result can be lasting harm to its reputation – damage that isn’t easy to repair.
“Drown the bunnies”
Take, for example, Mount Saint Mary’s University, a coeducational liberal arts college in Emmitsburg, Md., and the second oldest Catholic university in the United States.
When he became president, Newman said his top priority was to “raise a lot of capital and start a lot of programs and start the university on a more aggressive growth trajectory.”
The campus newspaper, The Mountain Echo, reported in January that, as part of that effort, Newman had pushed a plan to dismiss 20 to 25 freshmen early in the academic year — before the deadline for submitting enrollment data to the government in late September. That would be designed to improve school’s federal retention data.
As the school year began, he asked professors for a list of students most likely to leave during their freshman year. They would be given surveys and told there were “no wrong answers” – for example, ascertaining levels of anxiety and homesickness. This would supposedly identify those students unlikely to complete their first year of college
The college’s provost and some professors, however, voiced concerns. Newman, facing resistance, told the professors, “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”
The professors, to say the least, were shocked.
Shortly afterward, Newman abruptly fired two of them without severance – one who had objected to his policy, and another who had been the faculty advisor to the student newspaper. The provost was removed from his position, too, though remained on the faculty.
Higher education responds
Condemnations of Newman were swift and widespread:
- More than 2,800 people – most of them faculty members from around the United States — signed a petition demanding the reinstatement of the two fired professors.
- The American Association of University Professors, a national advocacy group, sent a letter to Newman urging him to rescind the terminations.
- The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education issued a statement condemning the firings, noting: “Speaking freely is a dangerous proposition at the Mount if it is willing to go this far to silence its critics.”
- The Faculty Assembly at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, not far from Mount St. Mary’s, adopted a resolution denouncing the decision to terminate the faculty members and condemning “the use of fear and intimidation, through threat of job loss, to silence faculty.”
- The New York Times, Washington Post, CBS News and other media outlets provided ongoing coverage of the controversy, putting Mount Saint Mary’s in the worst possible public light.
Leaders at other colleges spoke out, including the president emerita of the University of Puget Sound. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, she noted that a higher first-year retention rate has an impact on data reported to U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” rankings, and added: “Gaming the system by dismissing students culled through a cruel and deceptive survey administered at a time when first-year students are most vulnerable is the antithesis of Catholic social justice.”
Metrics over mission
A number of leading voices in higher education said that Newman’s actions illustrated why leaders of the business world aren’t qualified to lead academic institutions. One said of Newman: “He came to his position from outside the academy.” Many who have had successful business careers, however, have also led colleges effectively, not only through effective administration but through a commitment to the guiding values of their schools.
Even though the firings violated due process and Newman may have violated personnel confidentiality in a letter sent to parents on the controversy, the school’s board of trustees actually voted to support him. The trustees may have helped foster an environment in which Newman could make such statements and make unadvised personnel decisions.
But the real scandal in this case wasn’t reflected in the president’s overstepping of authority, disrespect for professors or even his insensitive language. Instead, it came in the abandonment, by both the president and the board of trustees, of the school’s mission: “…committed to education in the service of truth,” as stated on Mount St. Mary’s web site. “We seek to cultivate a community of learners formed by faith, engaged in discovery, and empowered for leadership in the Church, the professions, and the world.”
A college president (or any corporate executive) must balance two priorities: Ensure that the mission of the school is supported and implemented, while seeing that the college also meets the measurable goals of fundraising, enrollment growth, and financial stability for the long run. While there is “mission,” one college president said, there are also “metrics.” Newman, she said, chose “metrics over mission,” thus cheapening the school’s values as he sought to cut corners to improve the school’s financials.
Corporate executives can learn from the lessons of Mount Saint Mary’s. Balancing mission and metrics isn’t unique to higher education: It’s required of every corporation. Making a profit is not enough – a company must also fulfill a purpose and carry out its mission, whether it be in providing dependable products, supporting advances in medicine and health care, delivering food that is free of contamination, or taking other steps to succeed in their chosen fields or industries.
A mission provides focus. When an organization stays true to its mission, it focuses its energies on delivering higher value to its customers. Profits follow.
Newman illustrates how dismissing that mission – even if it was done with the intention of helping the school – can harm an institution’s reputation. In the long run that can be much more costly, even in financial terms, than a short-term financial loss. Only time will tell how this incident will affect the engagement of current students and future students whom the school would like to attract.
Back at the college, the two professors were reinstated to their positions, and Newman resigned on February 29, 2016. Mount St. Mary’s may be out from underneath public and media scrutiny, but it faces the task of repairing its reputation among alumni, students, others in Catholic higher education, donors and others. Once again, this chapter shows how an executive, in one ill-advised decision, severely damage a reputation, and how restoring it will require many renewed efforts to restore trust with key constituencies.